How Zealous Clergy and Their Media Enablers Are Manufacturing a Controversy Over Birth Control Coverage

The latest battle in the never-ending culture wars is about birth control--you know, the stuff 99 percent of American women use to prevent pregnancy and for a host of other medical reasons.

This particular fight centers around whether employers will have to offer insurance plans that cover contraception. Even better, these are plans with a low or nonexistent co-pay for contraception, all under a new guideline from the Obama Administration's Department of Health and Human Services which considers contraception "preventive care." Even more specifically under contention is whether religiously affiliated (but not exclusively religious) employers must do this, must allow women who are students, employees, or related to employees, to be insured under that kind of birth control inclusive plan.

The Obama Administration has allowed a narrow exemption for houses of worship and other exclusively religious organizations, but has been tough and courageous by extending the mandate to bigger organizations that employ people from across the religious spectrum.

So the institutions that will have to get themselves in gear are religiously affiliated universities, charities and hospitals. This makes a lot of sense. We all know there are people who work at such institutions who in no way share their employers' more rigorous or differing religious beliefs.

Now let's take a step back and recall that this bill is not mandating these employers actually pay for birth control. Employees pay into insurance, after all, with money withheld from their paychecks. As blogger SharkFu notes:

Meds without a co-payment are not “free." If the word “co-pay” enters a discussion...then y’all are talking about insurance coverage. If y’all are talking about insurance coverage...then folks are paying for insurance. If folks are paying for insurance...THEN YOU ARE PAYING FOR MEDS & SERVICES!!

It would seem, therefore, that since none of these organizations are being forced to bankroll birth control, nor to expressly condone it in any sense, the real issue is that they would simply be forced to comply with a law that acknowledges it. Even more to the point, they would be forced to stop insisting that women under their employ or their relatives go elsewhere or pay out of pocket for basic healthcare. They would essentially have to stop discriminating against women, a discrimination that results in unintended pregnancies, heavy out-of-pocket fees, and even more drastic health consequences.

So refusing to let institutions do this--sounds Kosher to me.

For many among the (ahem! celibate) Catholic clergy, though, this new rule is just too much. Here's an example of the kinds of statements coming from bishops in the wake of this brave decision by the Obama administration:

This shift is but a thinly disguised way of silencing the moral witness of Catholics in protecting the sanctity and dignity of every human life, in defending marriage and family from attacks upon it, and from sowing the seeds of our faith through our works of mercy. It is an attempt to put a bushel basket over the light of our Catholic faith and to keep it a private matter to be expressed only inside a church, and even then with limits.

That is the kind of language being leveled against the White House: "right of conscience" and "religious freedom" is the party line for the opposition to this measure. But it hasn't always been. Amanda Marcotte on Twitter pointed to a story from summer 2010 by Dana Goldstein, in which the bishops' reasons for opposing birth control coverage were not at all about religious freedom, but actually about opposition to sex. 

"I don't want to overstate or understate our level of concern," said McQuade, the Catholic bishops' spokesperson. "We consider [birth control] an elective drug. Married women can practice periodic abstinence. Other women can abstain altogether. Not having sex doesn't make you sick."

There you have it: the real opposition here isn't about conscience, it's about refusing to face the reality of the birds, the bees, and the modern world.

The irony is rich from a Catholic hierarchy that has behaved so shamefully in regards to its own sex abuse scandals. Just this week, the New York Times noted that Cardinal Timothy Egan apologized for apologizing for an abuse scandal that occurred on his watch: "In an interview in the February issue of Connecticut magazine, a surprisingly frank Cardinal Egan said of the apology, 'I never should have said that,' and added, 'I don’t think we did anything wrong.'"

These are the people that the press, for the most part, is trusting as a moral authority on women's sex lives. The Times itself is calling the opposition of the bishops, rabbis, and other assorted religious types a "firestorm," even though the Obama administration's provision has broad public support.  

The problem here is that the "religious freedom" line has been bought hook, line and sinker by a credulous (and largely, though not entirely) male punditry thanks to it being pushed by many prominent Catholics who are prominent in the Beltway. Steve M. at BooMan Tribune breaks it down:

The leadership of the Catholic Church is peeved, but rank-and-file Catholics aren't. So why is this a firestorm?

It's a firestorm, I think, because the American political elite teems with high-profile right-wing Catholics -- among them converts such as Newt Gingrich, Robert Bork, Sam Brownback, Laura Ingraham, Lawrence Kudlow, and Ramesh Ponnuru. 

He calls this "a Catholic-winger noise machine that can convey the sense within the Beltway that Catholics believe a certain thing when, in fact, only prominent right-wing Catholic pols and pundits believe it in great numbers."

This also touches on a big blind spot the mainstream media has when it comes to covering religion -- it accepts the authority of more conservative religious figures and ignores the rest. In this case, what's been missing is the fact that groups like the National Council of Jewish Women and Catholics for Choice have been some of the administration's most fervent supporters on this very issue -- for religious reasons as well as health ones. They are also concerned with freedom of religion and freedom of conscience -- the freedom of women to make informed choices about their health without their employer's zealotry butting in.

Focusing on the freedom of conscience of loosely religious institutions also profoundly misunderstands what it means from a legal and social perspective to provide health insurance to employees. It's not handing out pills. It's not getting involved in their lives. It's a contract. As Robert Creamer writes at the Huffington Post:

Health insurance coverage is not a voluntary gift to employees. It is a part of their compensation package. If someone opposed the minimum wage on religious grounds -- say because they believed it "discouraged individual initiative" -- that wouldn't excuse them from having to pay the minimum wage.

Much of the media's relentless focus on the clergy instead of the laity, and on bishops instead of on women, has raised fears that the administration might cave. Prominent moderates like Tim Kaine have broken with the president, to pander to the bishops. Certainly, all eyes will be on the one-year period the administration has given these institutions to come into compliance. 

In the meantime, though, with the election pending, the White House might just stay the course because it's actually the politically expedient thing to do -- not just because Catholics support it (which they do) but because a clutch group of Obama voters do. Sarah Kliff explains:

it may well be about the demographics that are most supportive of this particular health reform provision: young voters and women. In the PRRI poll, both groups register support above 60 percent for the provision.
Those two demographics are important here for a key reason: they were crucial to Obama’s victory in 2008. Third Way crunched the numbers earlier this month and found that the “Obama Independents” — the swing group that proved crucial to his 2008 victory — are, as Ryan Lizza put it, “disproportionately young, female and secular.”

Some in the GOP are concerned, too, that this is a losing issue for their party:

Now, as Speaker John Boehner seemingly prepares to turn the House GOP’s attention to contraception, pro-choice Republicans are warning that the GOP may become the next Komen for the Cure.

Indeed, in the wake of the Komen victory, women's health advocates may be primed to harness that same wave of energy to stand with the government when it does something good for women and face down the barrage of right-wing criticism. As of Wednesday night, Planned Parenthood had sent out a blast to its email list, with a petition that, once signed, offers supporters a cheeky tweet aimed directly at Speaker Boehner and candidate Mitt Romney.

And like Komengate, this is another example of ideologues playing football with women's health. Full contraception coverage would actually affect women's lives in the here and now, giving us a little boost of everyday equality, a dose of freedom from hassle, a chance to breathe easy about our health. Wouldn't it be nice if those guys in robes and hats waving holy books at us would just get out of the way?

So in addition to signing numerous petitions and raising our voices online, women might consider directing their ire at their local media outlets. This is a perfect time to contact reporters and write letters to the editor, reminding them that lobbying groups that represent clergy are not the same as people in the pews, in the streets, in doctors' offices--or in the voting booth. 

Update 2/8: This video from The Last Word -- an interview with lawyer David Boies -- explains exactly how and why this mandate is both constitutional and fair.

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